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Lockdowns hit zoos hard. The cagers are caged. The worst confinement Paris ever experienced was the Prussian siege of 1870 to 1871. After dogs, rats and leather boots, the zoo became haute cuisine. Victor Hugo dined on elephant steak and pronounced it inferior to bear.
London’s twin zoos, metropolitan in Camden, rural in Whipsnade, have suffered over the last year. Neither would ever go into the bush-meat market, but times have never in living memory been as tough – £20m tough and rising.
The Zoological Society of London, a charity, depends on public admission revenue and donations. Over the last year paying footfall has been minimal. Easter is traditionally the beginning of the peak season. Not this year.
The zoo is lobbying for access to the government’s zoo animals fund, largely unspent and due to close last week but now kept open. The Catch 22 is that an institution has to be in unsustainable peril to get support. Core ZSL staff can’t be furloughed because 20,000 animals need them daily, sometimes hourly.
What shall we lose if London’s zoo complex continues to bleed? As well ask what the world would lose. The zoo began in 1827 as the Zoological Society of London, a college, and ZSL is still its badge. The society’s purpose was science, study and exploration, not showbusiness. For the first 20 years the public could only get in with a signed form.
ZSL was founded and still opposes traditional zoo trophyism. England’s first considerable menagerie was that of Henry III at the Tower of London. Its walls were strained with the gift of an elephant from the French monarch, his brother-in-law, in 1255. The beast died in three years of a surfeit of red wine. Very French.
Powerful rich men, from European monarchs and plutocrats such as William Randolph Hearst to Michael Jackson, have gathered expensive menageries. To prove what? Love of animals certainly, but mainly a love of personal supremacy.
In King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz points out that we sentimentalise animals insofar as we can mirror our faces in theirs. We Dumbo-ise and Shere Khan-ise them. Childhood fairy stories ingrain the habit.
Those orange bags carried virtuously to and from our supermarkets and the child-delighting trunki suitcase distract us from our knowing what we don’t want to. What is that? The African elephant, the largest terrestrial animal on earth, confronts extinction.
Anthropomorphism, humanising the animal kingdom, rolls knowingly off the visitor’s tongue. A thoughtful walk through the two London zoos should prove the contrary. We are not separate but among them. Temporary living things.
Assigned keepers see the distinct qualities of “their species” and individual identity. Jimmy the gibbon, an incorrigible swank nowadays denied spectators, gives displays for exercisers in nearby Regent’s Park.
The keeper of the 64 penguins knows each by name and subtle character differences. The Whipsnade keeper, Stefan, extols his Asian elephant herd as they solemnly munch in their hangar-sized feeding enclosure. His eyes never lose them. Giving Bashu the giraffe a pedicure requires the skills of a Victorian farrier and the bedside manner of a family doctor with a handy satchel of carrots.
London zoo split into metropolitan and rural in 1931.
Each half “keeps” animals. Whipsnade is not a wild animal park. Visitors are encouraged to walk in both places. There are couple of unmenacing free-roaming species at Whipsnade. A nearby golf course, apparently, sometimes has wallabies in the rough.
The zoo’s aim remains what it’s always been – to conserve, preserve, and serve. Serve what? Our need to learn and, more sombrely, to feel what our species is doing to the planet.
At times, seeing yet again the caption “endangered”, one feels one’s in nature’s A&E room. It’s humbling. But against the odds the mood of the zoo remains, if the right things are done. But do them now. Otherwise we shall witness continuing extinctions. We too, at the precarious top of the chain, will have our turn. Going to Mars to find extinguished life is a sad irony.
As to ZSL’s current plight one can’t yet visit but one can donate. Better to buy a year’s membership and wait for it to validate when the gates are open again.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: London’s zoos in lockdown – photo essay | Zoos